A Jerk in the Night!

While we had a fantastic trip down to Grenada, it was not without an “incident”. Any cruiser will tell you that when stuff goes wrong, it usually goes wrong in the middle of the night when you least expect it. This was no exception on our trip. We probably jinxed ourselves by talking about how smooth things were going. We had left port after a major refit with many things only “dock tested” and had expected more “incidents”. Even the autopilot had not been completely tested and required calibration once we left the intercoastal waterway. John-Michael (JM) completed that calibration once in the big ocean but still outside the gulf stream. Since then “Shudders” (the name JM had given the autopilot) had driven the boat admirably.

So you can imagine my surprise on the second night out as I was just preparing to wrap up my 11:00pm-3:00am watch and the boat took a hard turn to the port. I quickly looked up from my Kindle and asked “Whoa, what are you doing?”, hoping Shudders would answer back. Unfortunately he responded by taking another quick turn to the starboard. At this point, my brain realized that something was definitely wrong. I suspected that the chartplotter may have hung and since Shudders was following a track on it, he had gotten confused. So I pushed the “Auto” button on the pilot control to disconnect Shudders from the chartplotter and instead have him follow a compass heading. Unfortunately this had no affect and the boat took another hard turn back to port. At this point, it was apparent that we had a potentially serious problem and I would need help. So I pulled the throttle back to idle, scanned the horizon and the instruments to ensure the boat was safe, then left the pilot house to wake JM and Katie.

As I rounded the stairs on my way to the master cabin, Katie was just coming out to prepare for her shift. We pretty much met face to face and I scared the shit out her (there was even a little scream). After a hasty “sorry” (I am Canadian dontchaknow), I informed her we had a problem and would require JM. I then headed back to the pilot house so that I could keep an eye on things until all hands were ready. JM arrived in the pilot house within seconds since he was already awake after feeling the unnatural movements Shudders had been making. I gave JM a brief rundown of the events and the things I had already tried. At this point it was pretty obvious that the problem couldn’t be solved in the pilot house and a trip down below would be required. He quickly handed me a radio headset, donned the second one and told me to watch the helm while he went into the engine room to investigate.

I listened as he climbed down through the boat and engine room to the aft compartment where the rudder is located. He wasn’t down there for more than 30 seconds when I heard “Yup, I can see the problem… I’m coming back up to plan a fix”. He arrived back in the pilot house and informed us that one of the hydraulic rams that drives the rudder had become disconnected. We had 2 options. 1. We could try and isolate that ram through some hydraulic valves, but he wasn’t sure which ones exactly as he had never done it before (only one ram is required to drive the rudder, but the dead ram must be isolated for it to work). 2. We could attempt to physically reconnect the ram if we worked as a team.

Now before I get to the solution, I want to try and paint a picture. A boat like Gray Matter is a completely different beast from our 37ft catamaran. She is big, she is heavy, she is tall and she is a monohull.  If she has beam-to seas (seas coming from the side), then she can get pretty uncomfortable especially in the pilot house (15 feet off the water). To help with this, she has hydraulic stabilizers that remove %90 of the roll. However, since we had dropped the motor to idle RPM, it does not generate enough pressure in the hydraulic system to run the stabilizers, so they were out of commission.

Now back to painting a picture… At this point, we have essentially lost most of the rudder control and the boat is driving in big circles without the stabilizers functioning. Every time she would present her side to the seas, the boat would roll and since the pilot house is high up, that roll would be amplified. So imagine the 3 of us standing with our legs spread really wide discussing our options as the boat spins in big circles and with every roll we all instinctively grab ahold of something, while we stop discussing and listen to shit fall off various counters and shelves somewhere on the boat. I would guess there was probably 6-8ft of movement up in the pilot house with the biggest rolls (imagine the top of a metronome going back and forth). The best part was the 2 boys sleeping up in the pilot berth were literally being thrown around and neither of them woke up..  I couldn’t help but remember sleeping on the bed in our old van as my Dad drove around Alberta. Ahh, to be a kid again!

Ok, back to the story. Since JM was not %100 sure about the hydraulic valves he decided that physically reconnecting the drive was probably the best option. It carried the least risk and seemed the quickest option. With the decision made, he passed the one headset to Katie, pointed at me and said “Your with me!” and was off down the stairs. I followed him through the boat and out to the aft cockpit where we took a shortcut to the “rudder” room through a hatch in the floor. After both climbing down the ladder and getting settled, JM pointed to problem and it was immediately obvious. The port side ram had actually unscrewed itself from the universal joint that connected it to the rudder.

With the problem staring us in the face, JM and I wasted no time getting out some tools and removing the universal joint from the rudder post. JM screwed the universal joint back on the ram, positioned it correctly and then came the hard part. We had to get Katie to move the wheel very slowly in the right direction to move the ram so we could get the pin (attached to the rudder) to line up with the hole on the universal joint. In the heat of the moment, it didn’t occur to us that I probably should have passed the headset to JM so he could converse with Katie directly. Instead, he would tell me “Small movement to port”, and I would diligently repeat that into the headset. Katie would do the movement and we would repeat until the universal joint popped upward into place. I reached over and quickly screwed the castellated nut beneath it to lock it in place. We checked over our work, installed the cotter pin to lock the castellated nut,  then tightened a jam nut to ensure the universal joint didn’t back out again (hint, the root of the problem)…. and just like that, the ordeal was over. Now, although this has been a long winded post, the actual ordeal only lasted 20 min from first “helm jerk” to being over!  (If none of this made any sense, then I hope the picture below will make things more clear).

Alright, I can hear some of you asking “What caused it, and how could it have been prevented?”.

Well, it was “human error” plain and simple. JM had one of the hydraulic rams rebuilt weeks before we cast off. Its pretty clear that the technician who reinstalled the ram didn’t tighten the jam nut that prevents the universal joint from unscrewing itself as the ram vibrates and chooches back and forth. Over the 30 some hours of moving, that is exactly what happened.


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